March 20, the spring equinox, marks the first major date of 2012 for the Maya Long Count calendar. The hype has already caused a bump in tourism at many already-popular sites throughout the Mundo Maya, but with a little advance planning, you can carve out some solitude (and preserve your sanity) while contemplating the enduring mysteries of the Maya civilization at their remarkable ruins.
While visiting the sites of Chichén Itza, Cobá and Tulum in the Riviera Maya, I was fortunate enough to have access to Dr. Julia Miller, an archeologist specializing in Maya culture and architecture and tour guide for the Mérida-based operator Catherwood Travels. Below, a rundown of some of Miller's input from my incessant questions, as well as some practical tips on how to maximize your visit to the Mundo Maya.
Ask about group size before you book. Go with as small a group as possible, especially at larger sites like Chichén Itza. Ask before booking about maximum numbers, as well as the guide-to-guest ratio. Otherwise, you may find yourself straining to hear anything at the back of a screeching horde of clueless tourists wearing fanny packs and even bathing suits (see below).
Dress appropriately. Yes, it’s hot and sticky in Mexico and Central America. But please (and I’m sure none of you savvy readers would dream of doing this) save the swimsuit for the beach. During my recent visit, I was appalled by how many women flounced around in barely-there bikini tops and skimpy shorts and men who went shirtless. These are ancient, sacred sites, not the Jersey Shore boardwalk. (As I mentioned last week, the beachside ruins of Tulum have beach access, but if you swim, don’t forget the cover-up.)
For most sites, a good rule of thumb is what you’d wear for an easy summer hike: shoes that provide some traction while letting your feet breathe; nylon shorts or hiking pants and a sweat-wicking, quick-dry T-shirt. I also recommend a light, long-sleeved shirt and a hat with a wide brim (the snugger it fits, the better, as some sites are windy) for maximum sun coverage.
Consider your impact. At places like Cobá, visitors are allowed to climb to the top of the 42-meter Nohuch Mul, one of the tallest temples in the Mundo Maya. Of course, I couldn’t resist the ascent. But even so, I felt a twinge of guilt that I was, in some small way, harming this magnificent structure. Miller completely understood: “It’s always a question of finding the balance between preservation and tourism. Any single person does very little damage, but the sum total of all those tourists starts to cause damage. With two feet per person, each person brings sand and friction against the rock, which starts to erode them.”
So how to scratch your adrenaline itch at the ruins responsibly? Miller offers a couple of tips: If the building looks like it contains original plaster or stucco – which can be recognized as a smooth whitish surface not quite as hard as cement, though it may be surrounded by modern cement or be in isolated patches on walls or floors – stay off it. Same also goes for any areas that are roped off, which I was disappointed to see several people ignored. (Yeah, guy in the Harvard shirt, I’m looking at you.)
Do some pre-trip homework. You’ll get way more out of your on-the-ground experience by doing a little reading up ahead of time on the Maya. As a primer, I highly recommend Joshua Berman’s Moon Maya 2012, but if you want to dig a little deeper about the Maya and what all this 2012 stuff really means (as I’ve written before, it’s not the end of the world, but the end of a cycle of time and the beginning of a new era), Miller has a list of intriguing books to consider.
Among them: David Stuart’s The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012, which discusses the past and present significance of 2012; Linda Schele’s The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art, which offers insight into some of the glyphs and masks you may see; and Breaking the Maya Code, by Michael D. Coe, which provides background on Maya history and a chronology of all the intellectual infighting that has come with the digs and discoveries.
In addition, Catherwood Travels provides an excellent overview of the significance of 2012 on its website.
Hire a good guide. (This is especially important if you skip the previous tip.) Areas where Maya ruins are a strong tourist attraction are teeming with guides all claiming to be experts in Mayan history, but if at all possible, ask for credentials, as well as referrals, ahead of time. Catherwood specializes in small groups but can accommodate any size, and can customize trips to include add-ons such as swimming in a private cenote (Xocempich is pictured at left), enjoying an authentic meal prepared by local villagers, and staying in authentic haciendas.
A heads-up for serious shutterbugs. At Maya ruins in Mexico, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has strict bans on “professional” grade equipment – especially tripods – because they consider their sites outdoor museums. If you want to use a tripod, you’ll have to get a permit ahead of time (they usually cost $450 per day per camera), but several people in our group used professional-grade lenses with no problem.
Maya sites in Belize and Guatemala don’t tend to have as many limits (tripods are usually permitted), but it’s smart to do some due diligence ahead of time.